Astrophel: A Pastorall Elegy upon the Death of the Most Noble and Valorous Knight, Sir Philip Sidney is a poem by the English poet Edmund Spenser. It is Spenser’s tribute to the memory of Sir Philip Sidney, who had died in 1586, and was dedicated “To the most beautiful and vertuous Ladie, the Countesse of Essex”, Frances Walsingham, Sidney’s widow.
Astrophel was published in 1595 by William Ponsonby in a volume called Colin Clouts Come Home Againe. It includes other poems besides Spenser’s: two elegies, “The Mourning Muse of Thestylis” and “A Pastorall Aeglogue Vpon the Death of Sir Philip Sidney Knight”, which are attributed to “L.B.”, generally assumed to be Lodowick Bryskett, and which show him to be a more than competent poet; one by Mathew Roydon; an epitaph by Walter Raleigh; the volume concluding with another epitaph by Fulke Greville or Edward Dyer.
The date of when Astrophel was written is unknown. It is assumed to be one of the latest formal elegies on Sidney, composed some time between 1591 (Complaints) and late 1595 (Colin Clout), but nothing in Spenser’s Astrophel indicates where it was written. However, given the close links between Spenser’s elegies and Bryskett‘s, a third elegy in the volume, it seems likely that Astrophel, was written in Ireland, some time between 1591 and Spenser’s return to London in the winter of 1595 — 56.
The exact reason why Spenser delayed in publishing an elegy for Sidney is unknown. However, in his letter to the Countess of Pembroke which prefaces “Ruines of Time” in Complaints, he speaks of the deaths of Sidney and his two uncles, saying that since his arrival in England his friends have upbraided him “for that I have not shewed any thankful remembrance towards him or any of them; but suffer their names to sleep in silence and forgetfulness”.
Astrophel appears as a complex and integrated poem, with a number of European and Classical sources, including Ronsard and Ovid. Perhaps its most significant debt is to Moschus‘ lament for Bion, enabling Spenser to emphasize his own role as the funeral poet speaking for grieving nation. Though the extreme sensuousness of Ronsard’s poem may have made it an inappropriate model for celebrating the heroic Sidney, Spenser’s transformation of it is thorough.
The second source of the poem are the actual events leading up to Sidney’s death in the Battle of Zutphen. The Netherlands, are transformed into “a forest wide and waste”, the Spaniards, who shot him, into “the British nation”, and the Dutch among whom Sidney died into “a sort of shepherds”. The period between Sidney’s wounding and death is imaged in the ten stanzas between Astrophel’s wounding and death.